Unite's Mixed fleet branch have won a decisive victory against British Airways. Richard Allday reports on the success of the almost year-long strike action.
After 85 days of strike action, stretching over almost twelve months, BA has finally conceded the need to address the low pay issue at the heart of this dispute.
With around 85% of union members voting to accept the deal, Mixed Fleet cabin crew can look to see annual pay increased by between £1,400 and £3,000 (depending on experience). That is a minimum increase of over 11% - to end a dispute that, according to the employer, had ‘negligible effect’ on its operations!
There were doom merchants in our own ranks also, who prophesied that “It will end in tears”; that a young (Mixed Fleet Unite members’ average age is under 30), inexperienced workforce were being badly advised, didn’t have the necessary weight of numbers, wouldn’t affect BA’s commercial operations, yadda yadda…
Some of these warnings were undoubtedly true: young they are (but time will take care of that); inexperienced they certainly were (but time, and collective action, has solved that!); ‘badly advised’? Well, given the employer’s willingness to pay out a minimum of £12 million to settle the dispute, it rather begs the question of who was receiving bad advice.
There is another aspect of this dispute, and it goes to the impact of solidarity on industrial disputes. There can be little doubt that BA were surprised, not only by the determination of the Mixed Fleet cabin crew, but also the resonance it had among their staff generally. Unite’s Mixed Fleet branch had not only decisively rejected BA’s attempts at intimidation through the use of sanctions against activists, - this was one of the sticking points of the original peace deal in the summer - but had recruited over 1,000 new members in the course of the dispute. Incidentally, as the total number of votes against action reduced in the re-ballot this year compared to last year, despite the number balloted increasing by 50%, it would appear that determined action won over previous waverers.
There was another factor which must have influenced BA’s mindset, and this is that they are now engaged in a bitter argument over pensions with BASSA, the Unite branch that organizes the (higher paid) cabin crew employed on pre-2010 contracts. There can be little doubt that BA were apprehensive about fighting on two fronts and this can only have helped Mixed Fleet.
Which brings me to two other points about solidarity: firstly, it would have been a far shorter dispute if BASSA cabin crew had acted in concert with Mixed Fleet from the start. Activists from both branches are quite clear that most BASSA members were entirely supportive of the justice of Mixed Fleet’s cause, but that the leadership that could have translated that sympathy into action was not forthcoming from the branch. It will be ironic if they now look to Mixed Fleet to strengthen their hand over pensions.
Secondly, no matter how disappointed Mixed Fleet members may be that this lack of practical solidarity may have prolonged their dispute, it is the job of every activist now to convince their fellow workers that solidarity with BASSA is in the long-term interests of both sets of cabin crew, and could lead to a far stronger, united, workforce in the future.
So far, all is good. There is still the issue of a two-tier workforce, doing the same job for different rates of pay. Until this is finally resolved, the core driver of the dispute is still there. BA have offered aspirin to relieve the pain rather than treating the disease.
There is also the case of the cabin crew supervisors, part of the Mixed Fleet branch, who showed sterling support during the dispute but are denied recognition as a separate bargaining unit by BA. Most Mixed Fleet activists are aware of the debt of solidarity owed to these members, and although the supervisors may not yet feel confident to force BA to the table, when they do they should know they will have the full support of the wider branch.
Given BA’s track record of only treating staff with respect under compulsion, it would be unwise to regard the current settlement as closure.
To sum up, a major multinational company (BA is owned by the IAG group) has been taught a lesson that their fellow employers may choose to consider: it may seem in the short term to be a good idea to introduce the ‘gig economy’ into major industries; it might seem profitable to rely on a policy of divide and rule, and attempt to drive wedges between different sections of your workforce; it may seem a safe bet to drive this through by selecting a young, inexperienced workforce with little experience of collective organisation (this dispute was the first contact with a trade union for many/most Mixed Fleet cabin crew); but what drives trades unionism is not ideology, or greed, or pragmatism. The central motivating force is a desire for justice, fairness, and equality.
These motives are just as present in McDonalds, Deliveroo, Uber or whatever other part of the economy bosses think they are on a winning ticket. Let us hope the lessons of the grit and determination of Mixed Fleet Unite spread way beyond BA.
Congratulations Mixed Fleet Unite. Respect.
Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage. A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.